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The Dissemination of Distorted Information

The Dissemination of Distorted Information

October 16, 2023  |  113 words  |  Religion, Politics

Those of us who attend religious services on the weekends are routinely instructed by our clergy to show love for the “stranger,” with an emphasis on extending such love no matter how unusual or off-putting that stranger may initially appear to us.

It is a noble aim, as so many old-timey religious nostrums are.  But this one tends to go by the wayside at the first sign of trouble.

Also undermining the cause is the way many of the podcasts we listen to and YouTube videos we watch and twitter feeds we check on tend to work against developing a better understanding of the “other,” and serve instead as disseminators of distorted information.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

www.robertjcavanaughjr.com

bobcavjr@gmail.com

Use the contact form below to email me.

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Is the Pope Catholic?

Is the Pope Catholic?

September 12, 2023 | 1,624 words | Religion, Politics, Economics

Asking whether the Pope is Catholic used to be one of those funny rhetorical question that do not require an answer.  Like asking does a bird fly, or if a bear defecates in the forest.  But these days that first question is not so funny to some people, and not so rhetorical.

In the decade since Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina was elected/elevated to the papacy as Pope Francis, the complaints levied against him by conservative critics, especially conservatives here in the United States, have grown more pronounced with each passing year.  What started as semi-polite sniping over his so-called fuzzy pastoral emphasis has evolved into almost open warfare over much more serious issues.  He is now routinely accused of undermining the faith, and teaching error.  “Schism” is a word his critics are referencing quite a bit lately, when discussing the current pontiff and what lies ahead.

After ten years of this persistent opposition, Francis is now starting to return fire.  At age 86, and with his health having started to fail, he might be sensing the impending end of his run, as older people frequently do.  Last month he described the loudest conservative voices in American Catholicism as backward-looking moralists (“indietristi”) who are disconnected from the roots of the Catholic tradition and its history.  That tradition and history, as Francis understands it, is about the ongoing discernment needed to help live the Gospel message in current realities.

So who is right?  We are each expected to choose a side in this raging controversy, to either condemn Francis and champion his critics, or vice versa.  But my mind does not work that way.  I see merit on both sides.  The concept of unchanging truths the conservatives rally behind resonates with me.  On the other hand, I also think knowing the mind of Christ is no easy task, and is always a work in progress.  With Pope Francis being rather conspicuous in making a case for the latter approach.

I guess I have not been able to muster the same level of outrage toward Francis that his harshest critics exhibit on a regular basis.  Is encouraging priests to welcome and minister to people who are gay, divorced and remarried, as Francis does, a blatant violation of established doctrine?  Instead of dismissing the effort out of hand, as conservatives are wont to do, maybe we should be having an intelligent discussion about what the word “welcome” means in this context.

And why are we arguing about who is more Pro-Life?  Pope Francis has always upheld church teaching on abortion, and has been unequivocal in his defense of the innocent unborn.  Why do conservatives find fault  when he adds: “equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned.”  The latter concern does not undermine the integrity of the former position.

That Catholics of goodwill are so contentious, with the opposing camp picking apart every utterance and perceived mis-step the current pontiff makes, is a sign of the times.  The relentless partisanship of our politics has spilled over into every other aspect of our lives.  Another factor contributing to the alarm some folks are feeling is how different Francis is, stylistically and in doctrinal emphasis, from his two immediate predecessors, John Paul II (1978-2005) and Benedict XVI (2005-2013).

Both those men participated in and were products of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the big worldwide conclave in which the Catholic Church finally set aside its long-running objections to the American Experiment, and signaled that liberal democracy based on pluralism could be a legitimate form of social organization.  A little late to the party, you might say.  But better late than never, right?

These two helped craft the famous “liberating” documents that came out of that Council’s deliberations, yet as pope each went on to steer the U.S. hierarchy in a decidedly conservative theological direction.  As if to counterbalance what they still considered to be a very real problem, namely, the overwhelmingly secular influence of American culture.  

It has been clear from the start of his papacy that Pope Francis does not see this course-correction project as his top priority.  He is more interested in other things, like promoting from-the-ground-up collaboration within the church, which may lead to including lay people and even women in decision-making roles.  This is a hot-button issue for conservatives, who think such collaboration is opening a Pandora’s box that will result in confusion and error, and possibly even schism.

Hence all the talk of Francis “flipping the script” in a big, dramatic way.  But I find that to be largely a matter of interpretation.  He is, in fact, repeating many of the same themes his immediate predecessors stressed.  JPII and Benedict XVI did more than just push a conservative theological line, after all.  They also spoke and wrote extensively about the much broader mosaic of Catholic teaching around protecting life and promoting human flourishing.  Just as Francis does.

It is certainly true Francis does not mince words when speaking extemporaneously, especially when it comes to the economic stuff.  JPII and Benedict XVI were erudite and maintained proper decorum in their public statements, and this made it possible for conservatives to truncate the elaborate economic teaching they put down on paper, and frame it in a very limited way that flatters their preferred agenda.

Francis may be a little salty at times when responding to journalists, but in his plain-spoken way he is merely reiterating long-held church teaching on economic/social justice and care for the less-advantaged.  And he has made it impossible for conservatives to misconstrue his meaning on that score.

Conservatives really liked the staunchness and fidelity the last two popes displayed on certain theological subjects, and continue to cite those men wistfully.  But only because they conveniently overlook everything else those popes had to say that they do not much care for.

This current pope says quite a lot conservatives don’t much care for, and he seems to draw more than a few moral equivalencies they take issue with.  Such as tying together violations of pelvic theology conservatives consider to be doctrinally pre-eminent, with lying and cheating at the office to advance one’s career.  It seems Francis never tires of calling out those who are pre-occupied with sins below the waist but don’t lose any sleep over the exploitation of workers.  

There’s the rub, as far as I am concerned.  Conservatives can tell themselves their argument with Francis is over sexual morality or worship styles or climate change or a myriad of other things.  But what really sticks in their crawl is the way this pope openly challenges a revered concept like enlightened self-interest, and in the process comes across as anti-American or even worse, anti-capitalist.

In this regard Francis is not flipping the script at all.  Quite the contrary.  He is working from a very old and familiar one, at least in its broad outline.  A script used by every Catholic pope since our nation’s founding, each of whom have regarded the American Experiment with suspicion.

Over the last couple of centuries, a steady stream of pontiffs has issued periodic warnings about “Americanism” and “modernist” trends.  True, in the early days Catholic objections were centered on the separation of church and state, originally feared to be a danger to both individual souls and the state at large.

But Catholic tradition and history is about learning how to live out the Gospel message in current realities.  And so we find the nature of Rome’s complaint about the United States may have changed in some of the particulars, but remains in essence what it has always been:  It is our celebration of the individual, at the expense of concern for the common good, that has come under constant scrutiny.

We Americans have always taken issue with this Catholic critique of our way of life.  We do not appreciate being lectured on the common good.  And we certainly don’t appreciate having this same, tired lecture delivered by an aging pontiff from a backward Third World country who lacks a proper understanding of our singular achievement, a robust engine of economic growth predicated on small government and limited taxation.

Today’s conservatives continue to miss the larger message Rome has been trying to send them for centuries, and are pre-occupied instead by the new emphasis Francis is placing on being more pastoral toward those who have fallen short of their baptismal promise, and more inclusive toward those outside the mainstream.  Or how he consistently decries economic injustice and the treatment of migrants, while insisting on a universal right to health care, housing, and decent jobs.

Even though every pope in the modern era has talked and written at length about the very same things.  Including his two immediate predecessors.  

Accusing this pope of undermining the faith and teaching error is a very serious charge.  I have read the relevant papal documents promulgated over the last decade, the ones now being used as the basis for these mutinous claims.  And I just do not find the egregious violations of doctrine his detractors are coming up with.  If you are worried Pope Francis may be creating confusion and spreading doubt by unpacking the Gospel message and applying it to current realities, as some of his critics most assuredly are, the solution to that problem is to be a better teacher, not to skimp on the teaching.  

Shouldn’t we be trying to educate people in the fullness of the faith?  That is how I see Francis, that is how I experience his pontificate.  His critics strike me as wanting to “keep it simple, stupid” out of fear the rank and file may be too cognitively-limited to grasp the whole truth in all its splendor.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

www.robertjcavanaughjr.com

bobcavjr@gmail.com

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The Second Bill of Rights

The Second Bill Of Rights 

February 21, 2023 |  1,431 words  |  Politics, Philosophy, Religion

More on Christianity versus Liberal Democracy

Everyone is always singing the praises of liberal democracy, but these days many enthusiasts are expressing concern about the future of the institution.  Populist uprisings here in the United States and across Europe are seen as threatening the rule of law, and the idea of free and fair elections.  It seems the will of the people is not always a reliable arbiter of social policy, at least not when it contradicts that of our leading opinion-makers, or of the cognoscenti already in power.

But hasn’t that always been the dark underside of the radical autonomy ushered in by classical liberalism a half a millennium or so ago, and which defines the liberal democratic order?  

Most democracies have historically tried to mitigate the potential damage of an unrestrained outbreak of radical autonomy by limiting the franchise to the right kind of people.  While still describing their elections as “free” and “fair.”  In the case of our country’s Founders, some of the most revered signers lobbied hard for only property owners to cast ballots.  The common rabble was thought of as not having a vested interest in the outcome, and couldn’t be relied upon to vote responsibly.  This sort of gerrymandering has been happening ever since, both here and abroad, in one form or another.

The current state of classical liberalism, like that of liberal democracy, is also being hotly debated, at least among certain elite thinkers and opinion-makers.  Some are explaining “Why (Classical) Liberalism Failed.”  Others are contributing to forums asking “Is (Classical) Liberalism Worth Saving.”  The crux of the problem seems to be the way individual autonomy, when taken to an extreme, threatens the civil liberties of the wider community.  This puts a strain on the rule of law and makes it difficult to keep things from unraveling completely.  The potential for complete social unraveling has been a recurring theme under classical liberalism and liberal democracy, since it’s hard to avoid such extremes of behavior where flawed human beings are concerned.

As a culture we have agreed this strain is worth putting up with, in return for enjoying wonderful everyday liberties like religious freedom and freedom of speech.  Not to mention the crown jewel of classical liberalism: free market economics.  This last has bestowed untold riches on even ordinary working people, as basic income has increased 25 times in real terms since 1800.  

That is quite an impressive statistic, one many economists are fond of citing.  But there is more to the story, now that we are several centuries into the grand narrative.  After envisioning the ideal of a truly globalized economy for hundreds of years, we have finally arrived at its universal implementation.  And what is there to report?  The interests of most people in developing countries are being served quite well, along with the interests of elites in advanced countries.  Meanwhile, the interests of the working and middle classes in developed countries are being served hardly at all.  The very people that did so well in the three decades after World War II.

Which goes a long way toward explaining the populist uprisings being experienced here in the United States and across Europe.

It’s not that we should have stuck with the so-called “mercantile” economic system that proliferated in the 16th Century.  Only that when we started to substitute laissez-faire economics as part of an embrace of classical liberalism, we unfortunately turned our back on Christianity.  This expressed itself in a new focus on individual freedom as opposed to a concern for the common good.  This change in focus has yielded the injustices and glaring inequities we are experiencing in our free market system today.  Despite the post-1800 “enrichment” economists are forever raving about.  

*

We are taught the liberties and freedoms espoused by classical liberalism and codified in the liberal democratic order are contingent on limiting the size of government.  But when classical liberalism was first getting off the ground a half a millennium or so ago, it wasn’t “big government” in the cross hairs.  The new, revolutionary concept of individual emancipation was seen as a liberation from all previously held authority, custom, and tradition.  In other words, the elite thinkers and opinion-makers of the day were making a conscious decision to topple Christianity, the authority of record and primary keeper of custom and tradition, in favor of having us all go our own way.  In morals, politics, and economics.

The irony is that so many of today’s most enthusiastic advocates of limiting government so as to unleash economic growth consider themselves to be faithful Christians, without realizing their economic prescriptions are often at odds with the essential precepts of Christianity.

*

The presidential administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-1945) remains an object of ridicule for those who see a commitment to limited government as the driving force behind our nation’s remarkable success.  FDR is still a poster child for what many regard as socialist policies that are anti-American and stifle economic advancement.  While I am not qualified to debate the relative merits of Roosevelt’s many legislative initiatives, or care to defend his long and varied record in public office, I will say this: There is no denying the man’s life-long interest in social justice issues, first developed during his time at Groton Prep School in Massachusetts,  which he entered at age 14.

A much older FDR unveiled what he described as a “Second Bill of Rights” during his last State of the Union address, delivered to Congress  in January 1944.  (His better known and more frequently cited “Four Freedoms” speech was presented during his State of the Union address of three years earlier.)  By 1944 he had accumulated quite a bevy of boisterous critics, and they pounced on this particular speech as nothing less than a radical reworking of the American creed.

Instead of simply ratifying the central idea of classical liberalism, which defines “freedom” as protection from the abusive powers of government (described by some as “negative freedom”), Roosevelt proclaimed government could provide citizens with “positive freedoms,” in the form of tools they need to live lives of honor and dignity.

Here is the slippery slope of “How Classical Liberalism Morphed Into New Deal Liberalism,” as one scholar has put it.  FDR’s wacky and wild-eyed 1944 bullet points included:

  •  The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the Nation.
  •  The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.
  • The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living.
  • The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad.
  • The right of every family to a decent home.
  • The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.
  • The right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.
  • The right to a good education.

Roosevelt’s many ideological opponents, then and now, abhor even the slightest hint that government should provide any of the above.  And who knows, maybe they are right.  Maybe it is Corporate America that should take a closer look at this Second Bill of Rights, and figure out how to work a social conscience into its playbook.  Maybe being profitable isn’t the only thing a successful corporation owes the wider community. 

Regardless of who does what, it’s obvious there is a shortfall being generated by our current approach.  It is equally obvious that everything in Roosevelt’s idealistic (quixotic? unrealistic?) Second Bill of Rights aligns with the precepts of Christianity, and constitute what might be described as the Christian social order.  That we are no longer willing to acknowledge that, and no longer wish to discuss the situation in those terms, reveals how our commitment to the liberal democratic order has led to our complete rejection of Christianity.

So, listen, by all means let’s continue with this emancipation of the individual and this limiting the size of government.  Or, emancipating the individual and expanding government as needed to address the social fall-out.  Either way, if the objective is a well-ordered society, where every citizen has a reasonable shot at leading a life of honor and dignity, all these liberated individuals (and corporations) should consider an emergency infusion of empathy.  

Especially that segment of the population who are clever or advantaged and get to live above the fray.  For they too often employ a radical autonomy as their modus operandi.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

www.robertjcavanaughjr.com

bobcavjr@gmail.com

Use the contact form below to email me.

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Selective Ridicule

Selective Ridicule

February 13, 2023 | 1,198 words | Politics, Philosophy, Religion

Christianity versus Liberal Democracy

Everyone is always singing the praises of “liberal democracy” these days.  Not only is it universally thought of as the best possible form of government, it’s the only one any reasonable person will even consider.  This despite the strife and turmoil being experienced in democracies around the world.  And despite how we here in the United States have not done a particularly good job over the last 250 years keeping some of our own golden promises, such as the “all men (and women?) are created equal” clause in our country’s founding documents.

 

Somehow coming up short on such a fundamental premise has not prompted Americans to re-think their enthusiasm for, or question their commitment to, the liberal democratic “rule of law.”  Probably because they see it as the only game in town.

 

Christianity, on the other hand, has not been so lucky.  It no longer elicits the same degree of loyalty it once did.  In searching for a viable operational system that works for modern-day society, many elite thinkers and leading opinion-makers passed on the idea of religious belief and practice a long time ago.

 

And the rest of us have followed suit.  Christianity is no longer seen as a reliable arbiter of social thought or and public behavior, having been relegated to a merely private matter with no bearing on the larger community.

 

There is a consensus among opinion-makers and common folk alike that Christianity has been tried and found wanting.  It enjoyed its time at the top, running the show, but failed to deliver peace and prosperity.  Determined to find a better way, we adopted a system of “checks and balances” and now assume the problem is solved.  But there is something askew with the conventional wisdom.  Look how mightily our three branches of government have struggled to mete out simple justice over the last 250 years.  Then consider how much harder it has been for Christianity to get the mass of Western humanity to embody the divine directive “love your neighbor as yourself” for the last two millennium. 

 

Yet that degree-of-difficulty does not earn the Catholic Church, as the primary purveyor of Christianity for much of history, any wiggle room in the public eye.  Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, has been shunted to the side of any serious political science discussion.  Apparently, the Achilles heel of Catholicism is that it operates without consulting “the will of the people.”  This makes its shortcomings and outright failures more reprehensible, and less forgivable, than those of a run-of-the-mill secular institution. 

 

My contention is this: There was no reason to abandon the Christian social order half a millennium or so ago in favor of classical liberalism – the ideology at the heart of the liberal democratic order – due to the so-called failure of the former.  When things go wrong it is not necessarily the operating system in question that is to blame, but the people attempting to apply the system.  Flawed human beings trying to implement the lofty objectives of liberal democracy are no better or worse than the flawed humans who have been trying to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. 

 

We have been taught that liberal democracy is synonymous with reason, and is therefore the rational alternative.  But instead of an objective analysis of the advantages and benefits of one system (liberal democracy) versus the other (Christianity), we have embraced liberal democracy (and rejected Christianity) based on a highly emotional appeal to liberating the individual from any prior constraint: moral, political, and economic.  This liberation, it should be noted, is widely viewed as the key to “human flourishing.”

 

Having said that, I realize many Christians who embrace liberal democracy and the broader tenets of classical liberalism do not see themselves as rejecting Christianity.  Far from it.  In my experience, they typically see the liberal democratic order as a perfect embodiment of their Christian ideals.  A timely update, if you will, of the Christianity they know and love and profess belief in.  But to my mind that’s only because these well-intentioned souls have been let down by their teachers, and cannot see the forest for the trees.

 

*

 

There are many things to like about liberal democracy in the abstract:  Representative government with free and open elections.  The protection of individual liberties such as freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.  With these rights being codified in law, and therefore not subject to the whim of an unelected ruler.  Along with an emphasis on the separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and a system of checks and balances between branches of government.  But these lovely-sounding concepts are fatally undermined by the faulty  premise at the heart of classical liberalism, which serves as the ideological wellspring and jumping off point for liberal democracy.

 

That premise involves elevating individual autonomy and individual freedom and individual rights above any other consideration, such as the common good.  Classical liberalism asserts the individual knows best, does not require any guidance in moral, political, or economic matters, and should therefore be set free to direct his or her own path in life.  Unencumbered by any previously-held authority, custom, or tradition.

 

Following this line of thought, there is a corresponding belief in the power of the individual to figure everything out as he or she goes along, and that things in the larger society will work out for the better, eventually.

 

If you are looking for a quick explanation of how liberal democracy currently functions in opposition to Christianity, I would offer this straightforward observation.  The former encourages chutzpah in all things, while the latter encourages humility.

 

I would also suggest the Achilles heel of classical liberalism and liberal democracy is that it removes all limits to individual appetite.  It assumes an invisible hand and enlightened self-interest will corral and mollify age-old, socially-corrosive predilections such as pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth.

 

*

 

It seems that Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, has spent the last century or so trying to adapt belief and practice to the liberal democratic order, in one way or another.  For the Anglican Church, a seminal event might be the Lambeth Conference of 1930.  For the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) comes to mind.

 

I am not critical of these efforts.  But I do think the larger society would reap more benefit if the adaptation came from the opposite direction:  If the liberal democratic order, which now reigns supreme, could bring itself to work the basic precepts of the Christian social order into its thought process.

 

Giving priority to individual freedom in social, political, and economic life, with the pursuit of individual happiness understood as the highest good, may sound reasonable.  And focusing on limited government and economic freedom to get there does indeed make a degree of sense.  Especially to the clever or advantaged among us. 

 

But this logic ignores the larger philosophical issue.  Namely, the important role humility and moderation (i.e., limiting individual appetite) play in a well-lived life, and contribute to a well-ordered society.  And how practicing these virtues naturally makes citizens more empathetic toward their fellow citizens.  Especially toward those citizens less advantaged or less clever than themselves.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

www.robertjcavanaughjr.com

bobcavjr@gmail.com

Use the contact form below to email me.

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Ridiculing Catholicism

Ridiculing Catholicism

October 31, 2022  |  4,463 words | Religion, Philosophy, Economics, Politics   

Ridiculing Catholicism for being out-of-touch with the modern world is super easy, and it’s so much fun!  Okay, yes, that sentence is gratuitous, and designed to get your attention. 

You must admit, though, there does seem to be a thriving cottage industry that has grown up around trashing the Church’s track record.  As if this bloated, mean-spirited institution has done nothing but impede the overall progress of humanity, while keeping its followers depressed and guilt-ridden for the last two thousand years.

At least that seems to be the consensus among fashionable opinion-makers.  And I have noticed many practicing Catholics now taking up this line, actively participating in what has become a popular parlor game.  

Sure, some of them may be innocently-if-awkwardly expressing a wry sense of humor, or a good-natured anti-authoritarian streak.  But in the main I find such Catholics to be more than a little self-conscious and defensive about their faith.  Many have joined the chorus of complaint as if trying to establish their enlightened (or “woke”) bona fides for secular friends and co-workers.  These folks strike me as being a mite too ready-and-willing to distance themselves from their own narrative, without ever really spending time to learn the ins-and-outs of what went down.  Because, let’s face it, life has always been complicated, and history defies easy categorization.  Instead, they seem to be taking the accusers at their word, ready to assume the worst of their own forebearers.

I was reminded of this while reading an essay/book review by Timothy Egan that appears in the Sunday, October 2 edition of the New York Times (NYT)Mr. Egan’s reflections are prompted by a new “big book” about the Catholic Church’s last 250 years:  Catholicism: A Global History from the French Revolution to Pope Francis, by John T. McGreevey, a professor of history at Notre Dame and author of three previous books on Catholicism.

Not that I have any reason to think Mr. Egan himself falls into this slightly odorous category.  Though I am unfamiliar with his work beyond this one essay, the NYT identifies him as a winner of the National Book Award, with his most recent effort being A Pilgrimage to Eternity: From Canterbury to Rome in Search of a Faith.  At the very least, it would appear Egan takes this stuff seriously, which is always a good start.

But he does manage in this short piece to touch on what has become a familiar litany of Catholic faux pas of the recent past.  The very points of contention secularists use to scorn the Church’s claim to any sort of moral authority.  The same faux pas that make so many Catholics cringe, and compromise their participation in public discourse.

Which is to say, many Catholics are no longer comfortable bringing an authentically Catholic perspective to the discussion of contemporary social issues.  Or comfortable even trying to figure out what that perspective should be.  They have, to a large extent, adopted “accepted wisdom,” and think/speak in the current anti-Catholic vernacular.

In fact, when it comes to criticizing the Catholic Church, Catholics can often be found leading the way, so as not to be criticized themselves for being three steps behind the times.

 

*

 

Timothy Egan begins his October 2 essay/book review with an entertaining anecdote about his fear of authoritarian nuns who wielded a stiff ruler back in grade school, and his disappointment with the priest who, charged with explaining the intricacies of Church history and papal doctrines to 12-year-old charges, could muster nothing better than, “Well, it’s a mystery.”

Mr. Egan and I are the same age, and I am willing to bet our experiences in Catholic school were very similar, even though we grew up on opposite coasts.  I, too, used to comment for comedic effect on how tough the nuns were on us, but did so as a source of pride.  I stopped once I realized this fond memory was being used to tar-and-feather my old teachers as repressed, sadist virgins out for blood.  Go ahead and denigrate me as just another too-polite “good Catholic boy” if you will, but I have always harbored a deep respect for the nuns who taught us in grade school.  These determined, purposeful women really had their you-know-what together, as we used to say.  Even as a kid that level of focus impressed me no end, as did their vocation.  They were willingly giving themselves to a life of service.  In this case, that service was attempting to educate and civilize a room full of six dozen chirping little people, half of whom were young male hooligans.  A sturdy constitution was an absolute prerequisite for taming that crowd.

And what of the fact little Timmy found “all those monarchs and ministers, the papal edicts and parsing of purgatory, (and) the vast inexplicability of the doctrine of infallibility” a spiritual muddle?  Well, can even the brightest twelve-year-old be expected to grasp the intricacies and inner workings of the oldest institution in the Western world?  Can a teacher of such tadpoles really be blamed for keeping things simple and going a little light on the details?    

*

The two above examples constitute the easy stuff, of course, and Mr. Egan goes on to raise many more challenging concerns.   Catholicism may be vibrant and growing steadily outside of Europe and North America, but “that vibrancy is due in part to a legacy of spiritual imperialism – cross and sword at the head of armed colonizers.”  “Spiritual Imperialism”?  That seems a rather harsh, broad stroke assessment of the admonition we were given in Matthew 28:19, to “Go, and make disciples of all nations…”

Egan is not surprised “a top-down insular institution did not know what to make of government by the people,” and “took a more cautious view of the many democracies that sprouted between the American Revolution and the various revolts of the 19th century.”  This is undeniably true.  But he ascribes the caution to “a faith that had long relied on kings and despots as staunch allies.”  “Relied”?  Couldn’t this so-called reliance just as easily be interpreted as a simple case of judiciously working with what was in place at the time, for the spiritual and material well-being of the population at-large?

Mr. Egan then takes a couple of high-profile 19th century popes to task for being late to the party when it came to appreciating the advantages and benefits of the ascendant liberal democratic order, based on pluralism, that was sweeping over the West.

Exhibit A:  In an 1832 encyclical Pope Gregory XVI wrote that freedom of conscience was likely to “spread ruin,” and freedom of the press seemed “monstrous.”  Exhibit B:  In 1864, Pope Pius IX is said to have formally rejected the idea the Vatican should come to terms “with progress, liberalism, and modern civilization.”

These statements are so anachronistic The Times saw fit to feature them in its Page 3 above-the-fold feature, “Of Interest: Noteworthy Facts from Today’s Paper.”  Reading them, the natural reaction is to think:  Oh, my word, how can anyone with even a modicum of intelligence possibly take the Catholic Church seriously?

But if the reader can look at them in a broader historical context, they become more understandable as part of an intellectual and spiritual continuum that is still worth referencing, and yes, even preserving.

Take the hallowed concept known as freedom of conscience.  This, as we know, is a cornerstone of the modern age, which could be said to have kicked off with the Protestant Reformation (1517).  It then got super-charged by the Enlightenment, which became the ideological inspiration for the American Revolution (1776) and the soon-to-follow French Revolution (1791).  Our revolution, whatever its’ ideological flaws, did not result in the beheading of George III.  The king and queen of France were not so lucky.  Neither were French clergy and orders of women religious.  Somehow the rousing slogan “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” translated into lots and lots of officially sanctioned murder, with much of the bloody mayhem directly aimed at the Catholic Church.  

Under the circumstances, Catholics (and the pope) could be forgiven for continuing to believe in the year 1832 that the Protestant Reformation and the Enlightenment understanding of individual conscience was still rather problematic, and ran counter to “not my will, but your will be done.”  One might say this is where Catholicism has always differed from the Protestant/Enlightenment ethos.  And still does.

On a side note, getting in touch with God’s will for us is what the Catholic mystics – some of whom are referred to as “doctors” of the Church – are always taking about in their visions.  I would only add that seeking God’s will should not be an idle pastime, reserved for quiet moments of contemplation.  When making important decisions, in either our personal lives or our public, economic/political lives, we should always be appealing to something more objective than individual conscience.  “Conforming our will to God’s” is a phrase Catholics still hear at Sunday Mass on a regular basis.  I take that to mean trying to base our actions on something more than what we may feel is true, or what we may desire for ourselves at any given moment. 

Then there is the old-timey idea that freedom of the press, if unleased on the world, would prove to be monstrous.  But hasn’t that actually come to pass?  Doesn’t our current for-profit free press seem sort of monstrous?  Think Russian hacking of our elections, rampant hate speech on the internet, and political attack ads.  If I was Pope in 1832, I could see myself saying pretty much the same thing Greg XVI did on these two subjects, in pretty much the same way.  Not that he had the last, definitive word, by any means.  Or that we should not continue to adapt/develop the teaching to better embrace/respond to changing times.

 As for Pope Pius IX supposedly condemning “progress” in 1864, that seems an oversimplification designed to get a rise out of those already prone to look down their nose at pre-Vatican II Catholic thought.  As the Church’s shepherd-in-chief, Pius was trying to respond to the rise of capitalism, socialism, and industrialization, and address how these big new developments were damaging the social fabric, and denying average citizens their inherent dignity as human beings.  While he may not have hit the nail on the head in every sentence he penned, he was at least giving it his best shot.  And you may have noticed society is still grappling with these same issues now, in 2022.  “Progress,” you might say, has been a mixed blessing. 

*

Look, I realize liberal democracy based on pluralism is the form of government we must now work with, and I am not pining for the good old days of a confessional state.  But forgive me if I do not enthusiastically raise a glass and give a robust, revolutionary toast to “the people, the source of all legitimate power.”  Because, based on the two-hundred-year plus record with “the people” being in charge, I am not that impressed with the results.

There is no question these 19th century popes and their teaching are what todays’ reform-minded Catholics want no part of.  They would like nothing better than to see this stuff expunged from the permanent record, to use a contemporary legal phrase.   

I hope my seeing value in the entire two-thousand-year history of how Catholicism has been trying to figure out how best to apply the teaching of a man whose time on earth was short and seemingly inconsequential, does not make me out to be a traditionalist stick in the mud.

It has become commonplace to view the last 250 years of Catholicism’s history as an epic struggle between two opposing factions: reformists and traditionalists.  But I consider myself to be neither.  As an example of my lack of partisanship, I feel no need to play the “good pope, bad pope” game that most everyone I know seems to be caught up in.  Especially since the designations are subject to change depending on the season, and on who is doing the evaluating.

“Pope” strikes me as being a particularly thankless job, one I would not want for all the tea in China.  And the popes of the last few centuries I’ve read something about have all struck me as putting their best foot forward under some trying circumstances.  Even if none of them ever managed to get everything exactly right.

*

Timothy Egan continues his book review/essay by tackling The Jewish Question, and Catholicism does not fare very well in his estimation, as you may have gathered by now.  He writes that author John T. McGreevy, in the recently published Catholicism: A Global History under consideration, “is dutiful, and at times outraged, in sections that show how the contagion of antisemitism infected so many Vatican leaders.  Social justice attacks on the excesses of capitalism turned into ugly and undisguised tropes against Jews.”

While my academic prowess certainly cannot hold a candle to that of either Mr. Egan or Mr. McGreevey, I have been reading the Church’s social justice attacks on the excesses of capitalism for a few years now, and have yet to notice a particular ethnic group being called out.  The excesses of capitalism are to be found in certain behaviors, and are not the unique purview of any one ethnicity, as far as I can tell.

Mr. Egan continues: “It was the same story in criticism of the rise of communism.  Father Charles Coughlin, the most famous Catholic priest in the United States, promoted conspiracy theories of Jewish global cabals and defended the 1938 Nazi violence of Kristallnacht.”

I am keenly aware the Fr. Coughlin of 1930s fame is one of those lightning-rod figures any respectable Catholic is now supposed to shun out of hand.  And I am certainly not here to come to his defense or make his case.  For one thing, I confess to not knowing anything about the Nazi violence of Kristallnacht in 1938.  But Coughlin was far from a lone voice in drawing attention to what many at the time saw as the undue influence of international bankers that seemed to be driving world conflict.  And while not claiming to be an expert on the matter myself, the Catholic Church did apparently see communism as the greatest evil facing Christianity in the 1930s, before Hitler went nuts.   The record would also seem to demonstrate unequivocally that communism derived its intellectual firepower from a core group of Russian Jews that took the reins there in 1917.  

Then for some reason at this point in his review Mr. Egan drops in a note about how Pope Pius IX, in the middle of the 19th century, condoned the forced conversion and kidnapping of a Jewish boy from Bologna.  Again, pardon me for not knowing the details, but something tells me there is another side to this story, one that does not paint Pius IX in such an appalling, unforgiveable light.

Next, we read about “(a) pair of notorious Vatican agreements – one with Mussolini in 1929, the other with Hitler in 1933 – (that) were designed to protect Catholics.  They were quickly broken and gave the Nazis and Fascists cover for some of their crimes.”

This anecdote almost borders on being a crude exaggeration, not worthy of a serious scholar.   What are we to make of it?  That the Vatican, along with the rest of the civilized world, had yet to learn Mussolini and Hitler were, in fact, the worst possible bad actors?  That the Vatican was wrong to try to protect Catholics?  Or is it to simply show the Vatican was mis-guided in its perception of communism as the greatest threat to humanity?

Yes, that last sentence seems to be the main thrust of this section.  For Mr. Egan then tells his readers: “Thanks to the dogged scholarship of David Kertzer, we know much more now about the unholy alliance between fascism and the Catholic Church.”

On my goodness, an “unholy alliance”?  I certainly would not have wanted to be put in the position of having to choose between the fascists and the communists.  Would you?  Are we to hold the Church in contempt for trying to make some sort of accommodation with what it saw as the lesser of two evils? 

I am also not sure why Joseph Stalin’s massacre of some 20 million Christians in the Soviet Union during this same stretch never seems to make it into these accusatory overviews of the Vatican’s so-called reprehensible calumny with fascism.

*

Egan closes out his review with the same thing John McGreevey’s book apparently does – the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).  This is generally heralded by progressive Catholics as the singular event that wiped away the Church’s historical sins, and re-made Catholicism for the modern era.

Again, I am no expert, but after reading my fair share of the sixteen (16) documents of Vatican II, I’ve yet to come across anything that strikes me as a paradigm shift in the Church’s self-understanding, or what progressives enthusiastically refer to as “new” theology.  

Though we should give the hopeful progressives their due for the boatload of welcome changes ushered in by the Council which the more radical traditionalists still cannot bring themselves to acknowledge.  As author George Weigel shares in a new book, The Vital Legacy of Vatican II, a few of the highlights would include greater lay participation in all aspects of Church life: liturgical, educational, managerial, evangelical.  Along with fully realizing Catholicism’s claim as a global institution, as churchmen from outside its historic European core began to take prominent roles in shaping the Catholic future.  Then by formally recognizing the altar-and-throne alliances of the past were no longer possible under modern political conditions, the Church has been transformed from a supporter of the political status quo into one of the world’s foremost defenders of basic human rights, and a leading critic of the political status quo.  No matter what your preferred political status quo happens to be.  

Regarding those grouchy traditionalists that do nothing but bash the Council, Weigel, who most would consider a rather staunch traditionalist himself, has this to say:

“Thoughtful assessments of Vatican II and its legacy must acknowledge that the pre-conciliar Catholic past was more brittle and fragile after two world wars, and more vulnerable to the cultural tsunami of the 1960s, than some nostalgic traditionalists imagine.  Moreover, bunker Catholicism is a betrayal of the commission that was central to John XXIII’s original intention for Vatican II: ‘Go… and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them all that I have commanded you (Matthew 28:19-20).’”

Which is not to dismiss the critics of Vatican II altogether, since they have also managed to make a few valid points along the way.  Such as how the council decided to replace the Latin Mass, lock, stock, and barrel, with a Mass said completely in the local vernacular.  While intended to make this central act of Catholic worship more accessible, the effort has in many ways sort of back-fired.  By dispensing with any hint of Latin, Vatican II ushered in a liturgical era in which things have gone a little off the rails, where the Mass has “often been dumb-downed into banality, if not downright silliness,” in the words of Mr. Weigel.  As many a practicing Catholic can attest, you do not have to be a radical traditionalist to recognize a deficient modern liturgy when you encounter one.

So we now have a contentious situation in which hard-core traditionalists refuse to participate in the new “Novus Ordo” Mass, and go to great lengths to find an out-of-the-way Latin Mass.  While progressives accuse such people of causing schism, by failing to acknowledge the Novus Ordo rite that became the officially-sanctioned norm after Vatican II.

Which is a shame.  Both sides in this controversy have a legitimate perspective that deserves a fair hearing, as is so often the case.  There was (and is) an obvious middle ground when it comes to the Mass.  Why not preserve Latin in the major parts, such as the Sanctus, etc., and use vernacular in the other parts.  The traditionalist view that the world went to hell in a handbasket once Latin was thrown out is too extreme.  But so is the progressive view that all Latin should be done away with as a vestige of a claustrophobic, hierarchal past.

*

Getting back to Timothy Egan and his October 2 review/essay, he notes there is still much debate over whether Vatican II is responsible for the dramatic decline in the number of practicing Catholics across Europe and North America, and for the thousands of Catholic priests and religious sisters who abandoned their rectories and convents in the decade after the council, in the largest such exodus since the 16th century Reformations.

Because this decline and abandonment follows a corresponding trend in Protestant faiths, Mr. Egan theorizes it could be more than a strictly Catholic issue, and might mean much of the world “simply has little use for religion in modern life.”

Here Egan perfectly captures the spirit of our age, but I am disappointed at how easily he seems to acquiesce and even endorse it.  This runs counter to an earlier, more expansive view of Catholicism as “the only thing that frees a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”  Apparently, some really smart Catholics no longer see their faith in such liberating terms.  

The contemporary notion that we have intellectually evolved to the point of having outgrown the need for religious conviction and religious practice is highly presumptuous, in my view.  It implies we are each a god in our own right, and no longer require any guidance beyond what our own unerring conscience provides.  No need to reference any objective moral standard, or attend to the straight and narrow.  This sort of hubris makes me think maybe Gregory XVI was barking up the right tree back in 1832, after all.

Which leaves the sexual abuse scandal as the elephant in the room, accompanied by what Timothy Egan describes as “its ongoing waves of official hypocrisy.”  Many would say this is the biggest single reason one-time Catholics have stopped practicing their faith, and have started to criticize the institutional Church instead.  And who can blame them.  The perpetrators of this abuse have certainly earned their place in Dante’s eighth circle of hell.  But this appalling story might still have a redemptive Christian twist before all is said and done.   We are taught even such desperately troubled souls are worthy of mercy should they choose to repent with a contrite heart.

Although Mr. Egan does not touch on the following aspect of the scandal in his short piece, many critics think this tragic turn of events proves the Church’s all-male, celibate priesthood is a hopelessly unworkable policy.  But others have suggested what the scandal reveals more than anything else is a post-conciliar breakdown in seminary training and discipline of the clergy, both of which became major contributors to the crimes of clerical sexual abuse.

As George Weigel implies, one could view the scandal itself and our reaction to it as a window into how “the once-thriving Catholicism of Western Europe – countries whose theologians and bishops were the principal movers and shakers of Vatican II – has largely disappeared since the council, replaced by a Church of the Zeitgeist that seems far more liberal-Protestant and woke-progressive than Catholic.”

*

Timothy Egan closes his review by observing Mr. McGreevy’s 528-page history features “too much infighting among long-forgotten church gatekeepers wielding Latin encyclicals and proclamations on sex. And not enough on the simple spiritual philosophy at the center of the world’s largest faith.”  This easy-going, live-and-let-live refrain comes across as a Catholic-lite sort of remark, and does make it feel like many of the Church’s intramural critics are more woke-progressive these days than Catholic, to borrow Mr. Weigel’s formulation.  

The encyclicals Mr. Egan seems to dismiss as elitist are indeed always composed in Latin.  But left unsaid is how these documents are then routinely translated into a slew of different languages, and disseminated to the four corners of the earth.  Each one is readily available for download on the internet, and written in clear, concise language that is easily accessible to the lay man and woman in the street. 

Tim Egan is certainly not alone is wishing the Church’s simple spiritual philosophy could be imbibed and enjoyed without having to put up with what now strikes our emancipated sensibilities as a tangle of restrictive rules and regulations.  But wishing does not necessarily make a thing so, and experience continually reminds us doing what feels good in the moment does not always yield the best results.

Without wanting to get too preachy, the spiritual philosophy which appears to be so simple has proven itself devilishly hard for most of us to implement.  That may have something to do with our inherently fallen nature, despite what folks like Jean Jacques Rousseau have preached on the subject.  

You may have also noticed Christ’s message is rather deceptive in its apparent simplicity.  This should not be surprising, since we have it on good authority the messenger himself was the most radical and counter-cultural individual you could ever hope to meet.  Unsettling in the extreme, some have testified.

Attempting to discern the deeper meaning of Christ’s various parables, and apply that meaning to all manner of situations to be found in daily living, is what has taken humanity so long to figure out.  But we keep trying, despite our many fits and starts.

*

There are many things in my life for which I am grateful, but at the top of the list is being Catholic.  No doubt Timothy Egan feels the same way.  In my case, returning to the fold at age forty after an extended period of youthful rebellion was the best thing I could have hoped for.  I don’t regret my long sojourn sampling other intellectual traditions and spiritual disciplines, because it broadened my outlook and helped me develop a rich appreciation for fellow travelers who actively seek the truth.

It’s the extensive exploring I did in my twenties and thirties that has helped me “know the place where I started” in a much more comprehensive way. 

So then dear reader please allow me to end my brief defense/rebuttal with a tip of the cap to Timothy Egan, John McGreevey, George Weigel, and yes, even David Kertzer.  I feel a special kinship with anyone who takes things seriously and is trying to put their best foot forward.  Even when they disagree with me.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

www.robertjcavanaughjr.com

bobcavjr@gmail.com

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